September 20, 2010
The "Y’s" have it!
by Valerie Merians
Occasioned by all the hoo-haw about Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, Katha Pollitt asks in a Guardian column whether “male writers have an edge in attracting serious critical attention?” She asks it very politely too:
This question, so urgent to women writers, so tedious to male editors and pundits, is getting its latest workout thanks to the vigorous tweeting of bestselling popular novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the accolades heaped on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom….Plenty of women writers get excellent reviews, but it is very rare for them to get the kind of rapturous high-cultural reception given to writers who are “white and male and living in Brooklyn” or, since Franzen lives on New York’s Upper East Side, are named Jonathan. “Girl genius” is not a phrase in our language.
She goes on to cite some depressing but interesting reviewing stats, in case you had not noticed the frequency of male reviews versus female reviews:
Indeed, men get more reviews, period. The editors of DoubleX, Slate’s women’s blog, found that over the past two years, 62% of the fiction reviewed in the New York Times had male authors, as did 72% of the books that got both a daily and a Sunday review. (Actually it’s worse than those numbers imply: Women’s books are more likely to land in the NYTBR “Fiction Chronicle” columns, where books are reviewed “in brief” so women not only got fewer reviews, they were more likely than men to get shorter, less significant reviews.) And the Times is not alone: The Atlantic, The New Republic and Slate itself review more fiction by men (if you include the reviews in the DoubleX blog, it’s 55 percent). A year’s worth of fiction coverage in The Nation clocked in at 75 percent male (!). Of course, it is possible that men write two-thirds of fiction or (more likely, but still improbable) two-thirds of the kinds of fiction such book editors assign – but those assigning decisions are the product of a whole hierarchy of taste that has gender built into it. What is a significant subject? Which writers get to ask the reader to work hard?
But Pollitt liked Freedom, and she doesn’t want to come down hard on Franzen:
When Terry Gross interviewed Franzen on National Public Radio he suggested that some other writers resented his success. Franzen replied, “It seems like there’s a different critique. It’s a feminist critique. And it’s about the quality of attention that writing by women gets, compared to the quality of attention [to] male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself.” Well, all right!
What are those feelings, exactly? Franzen quotes always confuse me. Anyway — he’s not a bad guy, right? Why begrudge him his accolades and accompanying millions? Pollitt concludes:
…it would be strange if literary taste-making was the one place where gender expectations and assumptions played no role, wouldn’t it?
Strange, yes. But worth looking into.
Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.